Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The domestic partner and I joined a book club! We went to our first meeting on Tuesday! It was fun!

But, most importantly, I read a book!

I got my degree in English literature in 1990. And I’ve read exactly two works of fiction since then: one that I’ve completely forgotten (it was about Southern women and I remember it being pretty good) and The Da Vinci Code. I’ve read tons of other books on history and social science since I graduated—along with my weekly fixes of Time, Newsweek and The New Yorker—but fiction has always seemed to be such a pursuit of secondary importance what with all this real stuff out there that I’d rather read about.

But no longer! I’ve read Oscar Wao! And I loved it! (See? Exclamation points! That means I’m serious!)

Actually, I loved it until the last few chapters. The story is only partly about Oscar, an obese, lonely Dominican-American man-boy who actually leads a conspicuously mundane life. The story’s jagged, meandering narrative spends the majority of its time focusing on the picaresque, soap-opera lives of Oscar’s mother, sister, ancestors and the omniscient narrator.

Author Junot Díaz has said he wanted the story to read like an animated jumble of conversations at a Dominican dinner table. So it jumps around in time and it even switches narrators. And it’s filled with lengthy meta-footnotes explaining how the Dominican Republic’s cultural and sociopolitical history influences—and a some points even drives—the narrative. It all works together beautifully, weaving a tapestry of rich, layered personalities struggling to navigate what may or may not be a family curse, three decades of Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorial cruelties in the Dominican Republic, and the poverty, distemper and crushing ennui of the New Jersey Dominican diaspora.

The book won the Pulitzer Prize this year, which is one of the reasons the book club picked it. And while I loved the book—or at least most of it—nobody else shared my level of excitement. And we were all hard pressed on Tuesday night to justify that it was award-worthy. It’s a great story told in a fresh, interesting voice. But it builds up these fascinating, nuanced characters, sends them around the world and through many layers of hell, and finally reunites them in the Dominican Republic for a big cataclysmic … pfffffft. It’s like the check finally comes at the end of this beautifully animated dinner conversation and everyone suddenly looks down at his or her hands to avoid paying it. Loose ends get tied up clumsily, layered storylines become disappointingly linear and Oscar himself—who was never all that interesting to begin with—goes from tragically pathetic to irritatingly pathetic.

That said, I came to love Oscar’s mother and sister—and the narrator once he revealed his identity and his relationship to the family—and I was sorry to say goodbye to them at the end. Díaz is masterful at building rhythms, dwelling on small details long enough to keep them interesting, and skimming over huge spans of time in elegantly crafted asides that tell you exactly what you need to know to stay engaged in the story.

While the majority of my new book club disagrees with me, I heartily recommend it.

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